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My Cape Cod: Vintage Writing About Cape Cod

by the late Rachel Ellis Kaufman (selected from her series of essays titled" Far Away Places")

What is it about the Cape which invades the spirit?

Cape Cod has no great canyons or Grand teens. It lacks New Hampshire's Presidential Range, crowned by Mt. Washington -- or Mt. Graylock brooding over the Berkshire Hills. There is no rock-bound coast, as in the State of Maine, nor even the brilliant colors of Martha's Vineyard's Gay Head cliffs.

There is little of the spectacular on Cape Cod, unless it is the vistas of the ever changing sea, the changeless stars shining in the arches of the heavens above, steadfast among the flickering curtains of the Northern Lights.

Perhaps it is the very smallness and fragility of the Cape which enters the heart - and invades the soul - to realize it's lying there so unprotected out at sea, subjected to storms and nor' easters that encroach upon its shores.

We sense, in winds that blow the shifting dunes and breakers which devour the changing shores, an impermanence - that someday soon, (tomorrow in geological time), Cape Cod will be no more. And perhaps we sense the shortness of man's life, too, and can relate. We treasure something rare that we are soon to lose.

However, it may be the simple charisma of the Cape that appeals. And eventually it "gets under your skin" as someplace totally unique. We return again and again if we are able. In one respect, however, Cape Cod surpasses all of the places I have ever been - as widely traveled as I am - it's fragrances! Why this should be I do not know.

Perhaps the combination of moisture in the air and the warmth of the summer sun drawing it out is distilled in the mists and fog, or blown by breezes of a bright, clear day. But there it is! It hangs upon the air, in sunshine or in fog and damp.

I drink in the deep draught of this clear air when I come back, and know that I am home again, however briefly, on the Cape!

Spring Breeze by Rachel Ellis Kaufman, pastel, from the
"Orchardside" series, permanent collection of the CCMOA

When spring arrives at tardy last, the Cape commences to send forth its floral scents. Beginning in late May, when locust bloom covers the landscape with silver-frosted leaves, the air is redolent with sweetness everywhere.

Then the lilacs begin their two or three week reign in dooryards, hedges, and cemeteries by Memorial Day. When they pass, the land is poorer for their loss during the other fifty weeks of the ensuing year. Alas! For so short a time!

But soon the fragrance of wild roses permeates the Cap, and after that the honeysuckle swarms up the trees and fences to cast its honey to the breezes. And so it goes through summer months until the fall appears.

Kitchen Sink, by Rachel Ellis Kaufman pastel,
"Orchardside" series, collection CCMOA

An autumn fragrance falls upon the Cape - of dampened woodland leaves and autumn smoke, arousing poignant memories in a minor key.

An ancient dread is born in us of winter's swift descent, when fragrance flies away until the spring appears. Some of Cape Cod's scents are so subtle that we inhale them unconsciously most of the time.

They are place markers, helping us to recognize and know more fully where we are. This olfactory sense is even more primitive than sound or vision. We draw in the actual essence of the place, not merely the reflected vibratory waves that stimulate the eye and ear. "The nose knows"!

There is a familiar tang of the air around the special dock or boatyard where you tie up your boat. Something of sea-water, fresh air, and creosote from the pilings and from wooden planks warmed in the sun.

There is peculiar land smell coming to meet you after a sail at sea. This smells of heat and dryness, wafting to you from the sand and beach grass growing on the dunes and barrier islets you pass between them in an estuary, or drawn from the resinous sap of pines. Your nose knows that you are nearing home!

Of course there is the pungent odor of the salt marsh, an acquired delight. Newcomers to the Cape contend that it smells like dead clams! Partly true, no doubt, but it is a compendium of many factors - water, grasses, sweet heather and salt air as well.

Cape Cod, the "Narrow Land" of the Wampanoags! Fragile, ever-changing, the sea erodes the promontories only to deposit their sands and gravels on the bars and beaches on the other side. In this manner, although the Cape as a cape may be destroyed, it may be that Cape Cod is simply "walking" across its bay to join the Continent at Plymouth. A transformation and transcendence - again, suggestive of the Life that lives on within us all!

All images published courtesy of Heather Blume

Publisher's Note: Please read the following request from Rachel Ellis Kaufman's daughter, Cape Cod sculptor Heather Blume. Your response could help to bring the beauty and wisdom of Rachel's work to an even wider audience!

Dear readers of CapeWomenOnline magazine – I would like to know if you have any interest in having more of these essays available for the public either online, individually, or collectively as a published book, "Far Away Places".

Please email me your suggestions and any comments about my mother's essay to:

Rachel Ellis Kaufman was born August 13, 1912 in Detroit, Michigan. The family always returned to the Cape each summer considered "The Cape" to be true home.

Rachel began her art career in New York City after graduating from the New York School of Applied Design in 1924. She worked in the garment district of the city primarily as a textile designer up until she married a newspaper reporter in 1937. At this point she turned to oil painting.

Due to her husband's occupation she began to travel throughout Europe and across America extensively, something she continued to do throughout the remainder of her life.

Even with two children, a son and later a daughter, Rachel always found the time to create, exhibit, and sell her artwork. In fact, traveling to places such as Lisbon, London, Los Angeles, Key West, and St. Thomas, V.I. to mention a few, actually fueled her work as well as her study of art.

During the autumn of her life, a single woman, Rachel moved back to Cape Cod and switched to working with pastels. The impetus for this change was the onset of vertigo and macular degeneration.

Still passionate as ever about being an artist, she decided to create a series of poems and pastel paintings based on her childhood memories of the Cape Cod family ancestral home, Orchardside, located in East Sandwich.

This wonderful collection of thirteen paintings with accompanying poetry is now part of the permanent collection of the Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis, MA.

Rachel passed from this life on March 13, 2001. Fortunately, she left behind an impressive legacy of art, poetry and essays as witness to the vital life she lived and the places she loved.